Central lodgings for intrepid explorers – review of Hotel Le Roberval

Graffiti

Hotel le Roberval centres an eclectic mix of neighbourhoods

Conveniently located within a short walk to Montreal’s Vieux Port, the Village and the restaurants of St. Denis, Hotel Le Roberval offers affordable, clean lodgings for people who like to explore the city on foot or with a quick jump on the Metro (Berri-UQAM).

The rooms are quite spacious and well-maintained, offering a kitchenette space that included a bar fridge, microwave, coffee maker and two sets of dishes. The Queen-sized bed was firm and comfortable, and the television was hi-def. And for those needing to work or wishing to keep in touch via social media, the free WiFi was very reliable and allowed rapid upload of photos to Facebook.

Parking is a bit of a chore, however, as you need to store your car in a shared lot less than a block from the hotel. Unfortunately, you need a room key to access the lot, so you have to check in before you can park. That said, you can leave your car on Rue Berri for up to 15 minutes while checking in.

The free continental breakfast leaves something to be desired. There is no hot food, the entire spread limited to croissants, cellophane-wrapped half-bagels, yoghurt, pastries and a couple of dry cereals, as well as milk, juices and coffee. Like the small dining room itself, however, the buffet is well-maintained and the staff who work the room are attentive to everyone’s needs.

Although the hotel is located on the corner of two busy streets (Boul. Rene-Levesque & Rue Berri), bound by government offices and the Universite du Quebec á Montréal (UQAM), there are several restaurants within a short walking distance (mostly in the Village) and a couple of depanneurs (convenience stores that also sell alcohol) if you just want to relax in your room.

As comfortable and accommodating as Hotel Le Roberval is, the lodgings are really just a place to store your stuff and rest your head as you explore what Montreal has to offer.

Needs to up its game – review of Aux Anciens Canadiens

Aux Anciens CanadiensNestled in the heart of Vieux Quebec, less than a block from the Chateau Frontenac, is the familiar red roof of Aux Anciens Canadiens, an unassuming looking restaurant that specializes in game meats. My recent visit was something of a home-coming for me, as I had crossed its threshold 15 years ago and had been amazed by the food and service.

A meat lover’s paradise, the restaurant has made its reputation on its multitude of dishes involving game ranging from elk and caribou to bison and duck, as well as various seafood offerings. On my latest visit, my friend and I had lunch, which was a $20 table d’hôte. But $20 was really just the starting point, as almost everything we ordered added a few to several dollars to our dining tab.

The menu itself was a single long page, but it was chock full of dishes, many of which were not particularly informative about the content of the meal and required questions of our pleasant but harried server.

As it was the Canada Day long weekend, the restaurant was packed and without reservations, it took about half an hour before they could seat us. That being said, the restaurant did its best to get our orders in and food out very quickly. Reservations are recommended.

I started with the escargot. The flesh was pleasantly cooked, offering resistance without being chewy or rubbery. Unfortunately, the flavour of the dish was largely overwhelmed by the cheese, which although not heavily applied was strong and distracting. I wanted garlic butter and instead was met with salt.

Escargots

Sloppy presentation and the cheese overpowered the garlic butter

My main course was the Trapper’s Treat, comprising Lac St.-Jean tourtiere and bison stew. This was why I had returned and it did not disappoint. The tourtiere was insanely flavourful, the tastes and textures of the different meats mingling beautifully with the spices and vegetables to create an unforgettable experience.

And the stew reminded me of the amazing stews my grandmother made; the vegetables firm, the bison chunks tender. Interestingly, the bison tasted distinctly like beef in this dish, which surprised me a little as I expected something a bit more distinct.

Trapper's Treat

Lac St.-Jean tourtiere and bison stew with homemade ketchup (like a salsa)

My friend let me sample her main course, which was bison cooked Bourguignon style with a creamy blueberry wine sauce. The blueberries intrigued me, and did not disappoint, not being initially apparent but making a sudden appearance at the finish.

For dessert, both of us had the chocolate pie with white chocolate cream, a very sweet combination that definitely needed the long espresso as a change-up. I admit that I was expecting the pie filling to be more of a mousse and so was surprised when it ended up being more fudge-like in consistency, making it a very heavy dessert. The best part was actually the cream that nicely contrasted with the tartness of the few garnishing strawberry slices.

Chocolate Pie

Heavy (fudge-like) chocolate pie with white chocolate cream

Aux Anciens Canadiens is not a beer-lover’s paradise, however, as the selection was limited to a blanche and an amber. And although the wine menu appeared extensive, only two wines were sold by the glass: a Chardonnay and a Pinot that my friend suggested was not particularly good. All other wines were sold only by the bottle.

As mentioned earlier, service was pleasant and accommodating, but the crush of patrons seemed to have caught the restaurant by surprise, putting the servers on a constant run that made it sometimes difficult to get questions answered.

Sadly, this experience didn’t quite live up to my memories of my earlier one. Perhaps it was the crush of the long weekend. Perhaps it was simply that lunch service doesn’t match up to dinner service. Either way, it feels like the restaurant needs to up its game to compete with other game restaurants in the area, such as Le Hobbit Bistro just outside of Vieux Quebec’s walls.

Game, if you are – review of Hobbit Bistro

Elk flank steak

Elk flank steak, salsify puree and tarte flambée

Deciding that we had had enough of Vieux Quebec, my friend and I decided to look outside the walls of the fort and check out the eclectic neighbourhood that ran along Rue Saint-Jean. Within blocks of the bus depot, we came across Hobbit Bistro, a busy little joint that seemed to specialize in game meats.

Abuzz with activity, we were immediately met by one of the servers who, despite our lack of a reservation, found us a nice little table in the corner, from which we could observe the flurry of activity around us. The décor of the room was as eclectic as the street outside, with a goat head hanging off one wall across from a large central table that appeared to have been hewn as one piece from a sequoia. We also overlooked the amazing bar, overseen by multicoloured bottles of all shapes and sizes.

The staff was quick, both of foot and of tongue, sharing barbs and quips with great alacrity and charm, and ensuring that we were quite happy and satisfied. This became especially important, as we soon realized that checking into Hobbit for dinner was a long-term engagement; while everything and everyone else rushed around, the food itself did not.

For an appetizer, my friend and I shared braised bison cheek bathed in a reduction of its cooking juices and blanketed with fricasseed Brussel sprout leaves and a mushroom salad that seemed to include enoki and alfalfa sprouts. Tender is not the word to describe the meat; fragile is more accurate. And the raspberry vinaigrette of the salad nicely cut through the salt and fat of the meat reduction, laying flavour on top of flavour. My only regret was we didn’t ask for more bread to sop up the delicious sauce.

Buffalo cheek

Braised bison cheek with mushroom salad

As a main course—which took longer than my stomach and taste buds would have liked—was elk flank steak spiced with juniper and mustard on a salsify puree and partnered with tarte flambée, carrot and a half bok choy, all under a demi-glace of cacao nibs. Again, the meat was incredibly delicate and wonderfully juicy and rich, while the salsify (think parsnip) had a buttery texture with a nutty finish. I was unfamiliar with tarte flambée but eventually guessed correctly that it was like a pan-fried slice of bread covered in onions and white cheese. This made for an interesting combination of crisp texture, salty tang and sweetness. The only negative to the main was the two vegetables, which we overcooked and quite soft.

Trying to pick only one dessert was practically impossible as everything sounded wonderful. Eventually, I settled on a lemon curd, honey and yoghurt mousse over pistachio cream with chocolate biscuits and a few meringues. Only the chocolate biscuit could be described as very sweet, the mousse and cream offering a beautifully creamy blend that teased the taste buds as the flavours evolved. The meringues were a decorative throw-away in my book and could easily be dispensed with.

Lemon curd mousse

Lemon curd mousse on chocolate cookie with pistachio cream

Despite the slowness of each course of the meal, the lively energy and yet intimate feel of the restaurant ensured guests remained comfortable. And it is clear the staff like working there as one server even remembered another guest who had last been to the restaurant several months back, recalling what the guest had ordered.

The restaurant almost seems too welcoming and accepting to be called fine dining, but the price tag would suggest that is exactly what it is. And the food is more than ample proof that this is dining at its finest. A definite must-visit for anyone checking out Quebec City.

The Majesty of Old World Faith – review

Basilica Ste Anne de Beaupre

A short drive to the east of Quebec City is the majestic Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, which has been credited by the Catholic Church with miracles related to curing the sick and disabled. Reflecting this history, you are immediately presented with a collection of crutches and braces upon entering the church.

A popular destination for both tourists and pilgrims alike, the church is easily visible from the highway and is a common point of interest on bus tours of the area. For the drivers, although street parking is possible, it is highly unlikely; instead, we took advantage of a small parking lot nearby that charged $5.

Feeling much more imposing from the outside than its sibling in Montreal—Notre-Dame Basilica—it is less dramatic once you step through the great doors. The lighting is much brighter than with Notre-Dame (less moody or awe-inspiring), but that gives you plenty of opportunities to read Ste. Anne’s life story, told in a series of vignettes across the vault above the main chamber.

With so many tourists wandering around, conversing and taking photos, it can sometimes get a little awkward when pilgrims are praying to the Sainte for her intervention in some personal need. More than once, I witnessed less mindful tourists lining up to get shots of themselves with believers praying in the background. I was unimpressed, and while I am not religious, I felt bad for those who are.

On the lower floor is another chapel with a much lower ceiling, surrounded by scenes of various priests and nuns from the area’s history working with the local indigenous community or immigrants to the New World. (I will not get into the historical and social implications of these interactions.)

And in the hallway that rings this chamber are several smaller prayer alcoves and rooms dedicated to Mary or past priests and nuns.

Within walking distance, you will find a variety of restaurants. Those on the narrow town streets tend to be coffee and souvenir shops, while those off the highway are fast-food joints like Tim Hortons and A&W. A couple minutes west on the highway, you will find Restaurant Les Artistes, a true roadside diner. There is also a gift shop on the Basilica grounds, but I did not visit these.

Even if you’re not particularly religious, the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre has much to offer as a tourism destination because I think more than Notre-Dame, it offers a true glimpse into the role of the Church in Quebec’s history and the faith of its current believers.

Exploring Aquarium du Québec – review

SONY DSC

One of the residents was checking me out, too

Looking for something to do on a dreary rainy afternoon, my friend and I took a short car ride from near downtown Quebec to the Aquarium du Québec. Within seconds of parking, we were met with a polar bear and two Vikings sailing across the lot…this was going to be interesting.

Reasonably priced at $20 for adults, the park is a combination of indoor pavilions and outdoor displays, the latter of which include several tanks of marine mammals, as well as an expansive playground and wetland park for the more energetic kids (of any age).

The main pavilion is set up to reflect the local aquatic scene, with freshwater displays of fish found in the St. Lawrence basin on one floor and marine fishes more representative of the open ocean on the other level. Although the lighting is quite bright on the aquatic level, which makes sense given the shallower waters, the lighting is much darker on the marine level, which can make photography of the constantly moving fish somewhat challenging.

For me though, the second pavilion was where all the excitement was, starting with a large almost pitch black display of jellyfish in different tanks lit from below in ever-shifting colours. As I quickly noted in checking my camera, the light effects can make for significant artistic flare.

One disappointment, however, was a display called Awesome Ocean, which was essentially a walk-through coral reef that curves overhead. Although the display itself was quite nice, offering glimpses of beautifully colourful fish, the entire display couldn’t have been more than 12 feet long, so the immersive effect was almost impossible.

Another challenge to the indoor pavilions is that many of the paths the wind around the displays are relatively narrow, meaning that you are constantly at risk of stumbling over the flotilla of strollers that seemed to be everywhere that day. This was particularly problematic in the jellyfish display, where many cylindrical tanks required you to criss-cross the room.

Despite having visited many better designed and larger aquariums—including Toronto’s new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada—I had a good time at the Aquarium du Québec, and definitely recommend it as a destination particularly for traveling families. Whether in the playground, watching the seals or scrambling from tank to tank in the dark, young kids will find plenty to do, particularly on a cloudy day.

Conveniently, off the beaten track – Quebec hotel review

 

Chateau Frontenac

(Not the Auberge Michel Doyon…rather the Chateau Frontenac)

Just a few minute’s bus ride (or a 45-minute walk) from Vieux Quebec (the fortress) and downtown Quebec City is the small hotel Auberge Michel Doyon, located in the quiet neighbourhoods along Chemin Saint-Foy. To give you a sense of how homey this place is, the room keys are actual metal keys.
Rooms range from suites with private baths and kitchenette to smaller rooms with shared bathrooms. My friend and I each stayed in a suite that was large only in the comparative sense. The rooms are not exactly spacious—the only sitting space aside from the bed was a folding chair—but they are clean and well-maintained.
The bathrooms are small, with only room for a shower stall, and in the case of my friend’s room, the bathroom sink was in the bedroom, her bathroom limited to shower and toilet. I was lucky enough to get a full kitchenette that included a microwave, bar fridge and kettle, while my friend only managed the fridge and microwave without cupboards. Unfortunately, the only available dishes were a couple of plastic glasses, so I’m not sure how you were supposed to eat anything you might have cooked.
WiFi is available for $5/day and was reliable and fast. One challenge, however, was the paucity of convenient outlets that weren’t already filled with plugs from lamps, television or air conditioner. For example, I had to unplug the TV to plug in my laptop.
The staff are friendly and helpful, assisting with directions or in getting a taxi to the airport. The hotel offers a 99-cent continental breakfast, which we did not try. And there was no problem getting a late check-out, which was given at no charge.
Although the hotel may at first seem off the beaten path, the location is perfect for those looking to explore more than Vieux Quebec. There are several nearby convenience stores and small diners for breakfast or supplies, and if you have a car (ample parking behind the hotel), you have quick access to nearby highways, putting you within minutes of destinations like the Quebec Aquarium or Montmorency Falls. A weekend pass for the local bus system, meanwhile, is only $15.
While it may seem an odd place to stay while visiting town, Auberge Michel Doyon is a decently priced alternative to the fancier and often cramped B&Bs within the fortress walls.

Step up to a breathtaking view

Montmorency Falls

Taller than Niagara, the Falls carve into the countryside

Less than half an hour from Quebec City by car, Montmorency Falls offers not only a spectacular view of a natural wonder, but several opportunities to actively participate in that wonder.
After paying $12 to park your car (or park outside before the gate and pay nothing), you quickly come face-to-face with the white wall that is the falls, plunging 83 m (272 ft)—higher than Niagara Falls—to join the St. Lawrence River. (Several tour bus lines also visit the falls.)
Upon entering the tram station and gift shop area, you have the option of paying another $12 to take the tram to the top of the escarpment ($14 round-trip) or wandering along a bridge and path to the base of the falls where you are bathed in spray. Here, you are faced with the question of whether you want to climb 487 steps and save yourself some money.
This is not for the weak-of-the-knees, although there are several rest areas along the climb to catch your breath and take photos. To give some sense of the undertaking, I am about 280 lbs but walk quite often, and I was winded and my legs tired upon reaching the summit, but quickly recovered.
Once at the top, you walk along a short trail to reach the bridge that spans the top of the falls with the river on one side and a sheer drop on the other. From here you have a spectacular view of the falls and even Quebec City, and I am happy to report that the bridge is very sturdy, placating those of us who fear heights.
A recent addition to the falls is a dual zipline that allows those brave few to slide right across the face of the cascade. I got nauseous simply watching other people experience the adventure.
And when you get back down to the bottom—my friend and I took the tram down—you can check out the small gift shop and snack counter. Given the stair climb, we think the site is really missing out on an opportunity to market “I survived” t-shirts.
The experience is definitely worth the trip out of town and will give you something to talk about for quite some time (especially if you climbed those ruddy stairs).